Memorial Day weekend is upon us people. For race fans from coast to coast, there is no greater sense of anticipation than projecting forward to the couch, an HD television the size of a pool table, some steaming brats and the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 all happening on one glorious Sunday in May.
In my house, this singular 12-hour period is a sacred day of forbearance from family and friends. Don’t bother knocking; nobody is home (figuratively at least).
Given the fact that the off-road racing culture has reached, in my opinion, an oversaturation point in terms of events, classes, sanctioning bodies and political agendas, the singular focus of enjoying two of the biggest races in the world (Monaco and Indy) topped off with a healthy dose of NASCAR will be refreshing. Add to that today’s painful lack of overall unity or scheduling courtesy for racers, fans and sponsors in off-road racing, and this weekend will be more of a treat than any in recent memory.
With the SCORE Baja 500 just on the horizon, the juxtaposition between these iconic examples of open wheel competition and the off-road universe is even more startling. Despite all of the rhetoric and hyperbole that certainly suggests otherwise, our beloved form of motorsports is not “ready to take it to the next level.” Dare I say, in several major areas it’s not even close.
Why? For all of the advances we have made in exposure, technology and speed, we still treat driver and co-driver participation as a right, not a privilege. Just because I can afford to buy and run an IndyCar at the Brickyard doesn’t mean I have the right or skill to do so. Should off-road motorsports be any different?
Perhaps the time has finally arrived in our evolution for off-road’s traditional “trial by fire” method of gaining entry to the sport to go the way of stub cans and gold anodized Jackmans. It’s a charming concept, but it’s an antiquated and increasingly dangerous way to go about our business/hobby.
For the good of us all, it’s now time to create, institute and execute a formal licensing program for every segment of off-road racing.
If you drill down into this argument, there are two distinctive areas in which arguments for mandatory licensing have relevance and validity – professionalism and protecting our collective future.
Let’s take that pesky concept of professionalism first. If the motorsports world as a whole is expected to hold such top-level and internationally recognized races as the Baja 1000 or Mint 400 in the same stature as the Indy 500 or the Coca-Cola 600 (for the sake of a real world scenario let’s take F1 out of the equation for now), then there must be a systematic “ladder system” for present and future drivers to achieve various levels of competition licenses.
We talk about how professional and cutting-edge the sport has become, but we don’t even match something as fundamentally basic as the Sports Car Club of America’s (SCCA) program for licensing its racers. In order to race something as rudimentary as SCCA Autocross, participants must also provide corner worker duties at some time during their weekend of driving around cones on a flat asphalt parking lot. More to the point, would-be-racers cannot even strap into a 60 horsepower Formula Vee in a race without first taking a full three-day competition school like those offered by Skip Barber, Bob Bondurant or other similar professional programs. Can’t afford a $3,000 school? Too bad, you don’t have the money to race anyway.
Oh, you want to run at the SCCA “Run-Offs,” this country’s amateur sports car Super Bowl equivalent of our SCORE Baja 1000? You’ll need to earn your invitation via placing well or winning a championship at SCCA “national” races, which you can only compete in after a certain number of “regional” events.
For the sake of further debate or hatred of this idea, consider the aforementioned 1993 Indianapolis 500. Every racer, no matter what their background, must undergo and pass a systematic, five-phase “Rookie Test” Orientation” at the Speedway prior to qualifying. I can remember that even reigning Formula 1 World Champion Nigel Mansell was subject to the same testing procedure – despite his lofty title crown.
Of course, I can hear the traditionalists moaning all the way from Crandon to Cabo. Before all the “grassroots” factions out there fire-up their keyboards trying to protect our sport’s traditional “open arms mentality,” in no way am I suggesting that off-road racing can, or should, follow down the path of our asphalt-loving cousins. However, when you consider that any Tom, Dick, Harry or Sally can race at our sport’s highest level because they can afford a 900 horsepower Geiser or Jimco Trophy-Truck, the disparity and outright insanity of the situation becomes clear.
Ok, now forget professionalism. Let’s focus on something much more important to all of us and our future – safety. Let’s put some of these concepts into the paradigm of off-road motorsports.
There should be no way that any racer can enter a SCORE or Best-In-The-Desert event without doing at least one more grassroots-centric desert event (HDRA, SNORE, VORRA, MORE etc.) or a Wide Open Baja or Zero-One Odyssey tour first. Period. That’s taking nothing away from the highly valuable place these series have to so many in our sport – nothing at all. But, there can’t be six NASCAR Sprint Cup or four Izod Indycar or three NHRA POWERade series either.
No racer, no matter the age, should not be eligible to run in a Lucas Oil or TORC series national event without some regional experience first. That’s a no-brainer.
But considering the history and rather wide-open (pun intended) nature of racing south of the border, may I suggest a secondary step when it comes to Baja newbies. I think for the sake of our collective reputation and also our most tangible world-wide asset, we need to consider mandating a one-day introduction class/seminar that each rookie racer and co-driver must attend before taking the green flag. These courses could be broken up between motorcycle and four-wheeled entrants, but both could cover myriad of basics like safe checkpoint procedures, how to contact Mexican emergency services, proper radio etiquette, the nuances of proper passing and perhaps even a simple first-aid training session.
These all-day sessions, perhaps held on Thursday before Contingency, don’t have to be a snooze fest either. SCORE could make this an integral part of the experience, perhaps including the participation of an Ivan Stewart, Larry Ragland or Andy Grider to add a professional touch. Certainly these seminars, and the entire licensing process in general, should evolve into a nice profit center for the sanctioning bodies themselves
One bright spot in this unfortunate “tradition” was the recent posting by SCORE International and Roger Norman publically pulling the Band-Aid off an old and lethal disability that’s been festering for far too long. In it, Norman finally and correctly points out what all of us have known. Almost as long as there has been off-road racing there has been the fact that the Sportsman motorcycle classes are the biggest liability when it comes to injuries and medical attention at most Baja events (not including spectator/local incidents).
I can remember the years when Japanese tour companies set-up arrive-and-ride “tours” of the Baja 1000 for inexperienced and unknowing entrants that couldn’t speak a word of English, never mind Spanish. All too often these poor people, who left the Ensenada starting line filled with pride in seeing their Baja dreams come true, got slapped with the reality of how far, and how hard, endurance races like this can be. Fatigue, inexperience and a lack of understanding resulted in injury or worse – and the dream became a nightmare.
The truth is that there are only a handful of motorcycle teams that can keep pace with today’s Trophy-Trucks or Class 1 cars. All the rest are sitting ducks trying to stay in front of the oncoming freight train of horsepower, dust and 39” tires.
SCORE’s new, shorter routes for Sportsman riders isn’t, as some suggest, a way to short change any entrant. It’s just keeping them safe in spite of their pride or false sense of speed or talent.
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.